Photo:Photo by Alexander Taylor

Cosquin en Japon – Fukushima's Latin Music and Food Festival

Quick! Think of all the places you've seen South American food and culture in Japan. Count them on your fingers. Where would you go if you wanted to enjoy some empanadas, real chorizo, chimichurri-roasted chicken, dulce de leche, or tamarind juice? Where would you go if you wanted to see flamenco dancers or listen to Argentinian pan pipes and guitarra? Tokyo? Osaka?


A view of Kawamata village from a nearby mountain. Photo by Max Holtz.

What if I told you that you could find a three-day Latin American festival that runs late into the night with all these things in one place, in the middle of the mountains in Fukushima? If you hear that and think, “I didn't know that existed,” you're not alone. The Cosquin en Japon Latin music and food festival in Kawamata village is unknown to many, and is a real hidden treasure. I've been four years in a row now, and if you're free the second weekend in October, I highly encourage you to check it out.

The 2016 schedule for Cosquin will be:
Saturday, 8th of October from 2:00 PM to midnight
Sunday, 9th of October from 10:00 AM to midnight
Monday, 10th of October from 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM
You can view the full timetable of events (in Japanese) here.
Opening ceremony. Photo by Max Holtz.

Opening ceremonies at the local school grounds. Photo by Max Holtz.

Kawamata's famous Yamakiya taiko group performing. Photo by Max Holtz.

Locals performing in the parade with traditional instruments. Photo by Alexander Taylor


Dancers in the opening ceremony. Photo by Alexander Taylor.


Dancing during the parade. Photo by Alexander Taylor.

Cosquin, the place referenced in the name of the festival, is a town in Cordoba, Argentina with a population of about 19,000 (similar to Kawamata's 16,000). So how did these two rural villages separated by 17, 600 kilometers become connected? How did this yearly festival, Japan's largest Andean music festival—attracting 161 groups to perform in 2006—come to be held in a small town previously known for silk? It all started with one man in 1955 who really liked Argentinian folk music. Really.


Local residents dance in traditional costume. Photo by Max Holtz.

In 1955, Japan was enjoying an explosion of pop culture, with radio and TV getting more and more popular. Seven Samurai and Godzilla had just released in movie theaters. The Japan Self Defense Force was just established. Many Japanese people were very very interested in things outside Japan.

But just a few hours north of Tokyo, Yasumitsu Naganuma, an Argentinian folk enthusiast in Fukushima, decided to form Norte Japón, otherwise known as the Northern Japan South American Music Alliance (北日本中南米音楽連盟). Which was basically Naganuma and some like-minded musicians scattered across surrounding prefectures. They worked to promote Argentinian music and culture in the town and nearby. It wasn't until 18 years later, in 1973, that a like-minded group in Saitama would hear about their efforts, and introduce them to some quena performers from Argentina (Cosquin had started its own folk music fesitval about 10 years prior, which was now huge). It was this first step that would lead to the festival we know today.

In 1975, the Alliance (which now consisted of groups all over Tohoku, including Sendai and Yamagata) held the first Cosquín en Japón event at the Kawamata Welfare Center, with 13 amateur groups performing and 200 people attending. The festival grew larger and larger, and eventually ties were established with the Argentinian government. To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the festival in 1984, 60 pairs of Argentinian students were invited to participate in a homestay in Kawamata. In ensuing years the festival was moved to the Kawamata Central Public Hall, due to an increase in the number of performing groups and visitors, and in 2002 was expanded to become a three-day festival.

Local kindergarteners performing a dance during the parade. Photo by Max Holtz.

The festival starts with the parade on Friday morning. All the schools in the area learn traditional Argentinian music thanks to free quena flutes that are distributed to students. Ambassadors, mayors, and governors from both Japan and Argentina have attended these opening festivities. Along with the sound of Japanese elementary school students playing a traditional South American flute, there's mandolin and guitar, traditional drumming, Argentinian folk costumes and dancing.


Argentinian pipes, called quena, for sale. Photo by Darryl Wharton-Rigby

The festival is small, centered on the public hall building grounds and another location down the road, but it is lively and packed with things to see and do. The first thing you'll encounter is before you can even see the festival. You'll hear the sounds of Spanish singing accompanied by guitar and drumming. These music circles are informal, friendly, and go on throughout the day late into the night. It's in this atmosphere that you come across the public hall, decorated with signs and populated with food and craft stalls. I'd recommend first getting some food, and settling in to take in the scene with some empanadas, imported cervesa (beer), or half a smoked chicken.


The main hall with food stalls. Photo by Alexander Taylor


Argentinian clothing is also for sale. Photo by Darryl Wharton-Rigby

When you're finished eating, you can peruse the really impressive selection of Andean handcrafts, clothing, and instruments. You'll find hats and ponchos made from Alpaca wool, Andean farmer trousers, tons of handmade jewelry and accessories, traditional toys, and enough mandolins, quena, guitars, drums, and more to form your own Cosquin folk music group. There's also lots of local Kawamata products on sale, including various cuts of their famous shamo chicken, local produce, and sake. You'll also see groups of the international performers (some of whom travel here solely for this festival) sitting and conversing. They're from all over South and Central America, and they are always open to chat and share food and drink. If you've got some Spanish you've been looking to dust off, now's your chance!


Previous resident Max in traditional dress with the Argentinian ambassador and his wife. Photo by Max Holtz.


Several groups get together to play music freely outside throughout the day and night. Photo by Darryl Wharton-Rigby


The main hall is where most performances are held. Crafts, goods, and instruments can be bought inside. Photo by Alexander Taylor

When you're done eating and shopping, pop inside the main hall, where performances are happening continuously throughout the day. You're free to come and go as you please, but you should really stick around for a while to see the variety of groups that perform, including folk dances and singing, classical guitar, Japanese groups playing Argentinian classics, and more. Past festivals have seen performances from Milagros Maya, Toda La Vida, Cascabel, and the Ballet Camin Cosquin. The main stage features these larger group performances, while down the road, in a small shop, you can take in some more intimate performances in a smaller crowd.


Performers on the main stage at Cosquin. Photo by Alexander Taylor


Performers on the main stage at Cosquin. Photo by Alexander Taylor


Some performances are smaller and more intimate. Photo by Alexander Taylor

Even at the height of the festival, however, the venues are never so crowded that you are ever jostling for space or waiting more than a minute or two for food. The entire atmosphere is very personal and casual, and everything feels so open to experience. If you are interested in the traditional Andean culture of Argentina, or just want to get some good food and hear wonderful world music, this festival is really one of a kind.

Come for Friday and Saturday to get the best experience. Sunday is much quieter, and many of the international visitors and vendors have begun traveling home, leaving mostly (still talented!) Japanese performers for the last day.


Photo by Darryl Wharton-Rigby


Photo by Darryl Wharton-Rigby


Photo by Darryl Wharton-Rigby


Kawamata is accessible by car via the Tohoku Expressway, or by bus from Fukushima station.

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